New York

Jack Whitten

Horodner Romley Gallery/Daniel Newburg Gallery

Given that Jack Whitten was nearly invisible to New York’s mainstream commercial gallery scene between 1978 and 1992, the show of his work from the early to mid ’70s (at Daniel Newburg) could only begin to fill in the development of this important abstract painter, but it did something that may be more important: it showed how prophetic Whitten was, brilliantly resolving the dilemmas to which younger abstractionists would return in the ’80s and ’90s with, presumably, little awareness of Whitten’s pioneering efforts. Whitten’s work of the ’70s seems to be about finding the intersection of unpredictable physical processes and the mind’s rational impulses: the place where each becomes the grid or filter through which the “ghostlier demarcations” of the other may be glimpsed.

In contrast to the blowsiness of most “formalist” painting at the time, Whitten’s paintings of the early ’70s display a sense of both exigency and skepticism that would not be seen again until Ross Bleckner’s stripe paintings. As Bleckner was to do later, Whitten confronted the challenge photographic immediacy posed for the temporality of painting, and that the logic of the grid posed for the intuitive rendering of light. In these paintings, Whitten used various homemade or adapted tools (his admission of the Afro comb to the painter’s tool kit deserves a place in Danny Tisdale’s Black Museum) to apply densely gridded layers of acrylic paint in what he referred to as “energy fields.” In places, semidried paint has been scraped away to disrupt the field, creating pictorial events that are not quite forms. Although some of these paintings are limited to black, white, and gray, they share with the rest a special sensibility created by an impurity of color coupled with a woozy clarity.

Whitten’s new paintings show that he has not weakened his pressure on the resources of acrylic paint. He is now making mosaiclike paintings out of tesserae cut from pours of acrylic, often pigmented with ink or with everyday materials such as coffee, aluminum foil, or human hair. In other works, such as the 12-panel grid Amazing Popcorn, 1994, crushed bits of dried acrylic are scattered like pebbles through a bed of clear acrylic medium. A work like Bessemer Boogie, 1993–94, shows that Whitten can still conjure a looming light force that inhabits the grid without being confined by it, but other new paintings show a greater concession to the literal presence of the individual bit of colored substance, a sense of mere arrangement that renders the work less mysterious, more relaxed, even merely decorative. On the other hand, I can’t help wondering whether they won’t look as prescient twenty years from now as Whitten’s old paintings look today.

Barry Schwabsky